Kellie Persson was at the WWDC17, Apple's annual conference for developers, when she heard Michelle Obama give an answer about why there weren't more Black women in tech.
"'You're asking too late,'" Kellie remembers the former First Lady saying. "'If you're asking when you're trying to hire people, you need to go back to the beginning, find out why these young women aren't interested or what causes them to fall out of love with it. You start at the beginning.'"
Kellie, who is now a Sr. Software Engineer at cloud-based construction management software company Procore, is a success story of that early intervention.
She joined her elementary school's computer club, where she enjoyed playing games and designing a printable book starring Garfield. That interest continued into her senior year of high school, when she learned programming.
When she started at Spelman College, Kellie thought she wanted to be a patent lawyer, to combine her love for math and science with a reliable career path. But her deep-seeded passion for engineering won out after she took her first computer science classes.
We sat down with Kellie to talk about her experience studying amongst other Black women and then going to work in a field where she was often an "only," how she's learned to show up as her full self at work, and how she has experienced the Procore community.
"You just have to show up"
According to research done by the National Science Foundation, only 1.6% of engineers in 2015 were Black women.
That's not the experience Kellie had at Spelman, though. Being a student at the historically Black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta meant that Kellie was surrounded by other high-achieving Black women just like herself—and that the faculty had opted in to teach exactly that group.
"Spelman has a really competitive entry. When you start, it's like a reset, almost a level playing field. Everybody's smart. It sets up an environment where you don't know anything other than to be your best self," says Kellie. "You're not going in there talking with teachers who you feel don't value you or don't see your worth. You just have to show up, and that's a very big advantage."
Kellie learned that she had to show up and give her very best when she wrote a paper on The Tempest, a play she'd read in high school, and got a "D minus minus minus" on it. "It didn't knock my confidence," says Kellie, "but it helped me to see that I do have to show up as my best self."
Spelman gave her opportunities to test her confidence, and most importantly, to do so amongst a community of other women that proved that Kellie wasn't an anomaly. "I realized I wasn't an 'only' any more," she says. "Even if I didn't see a lot of me reflected in my workplace, I knew that we were out there."
Stepping away—and stepping back up
When Kellie began her career in engineering post-grad, she was plenty confident, but still felt decidedly outside of the "club" of mostly white men in her department.
"It felt like certain privileges or promotions or things were extended to members of the club," she says. And when Kellie decided to start a family, it "wasn't celebrated."
"I felt that I was held back because of choosing to have a family," says Kellie. She ended up stepping away from her field for about four years. She considered doing a master's program in dietetics, to line up with her lifelong interest in nutrition and wellness, but ended up deciding that going back to work in engineering was right for her and her family.
At her first job back, she had to learn how to develop in iOS, and that shook her—but just for a moment. "It hit me hard, like 'did I ever know what I was doing? Was I just faking it this entire time?'" says Kellie. "But I was able to tap back into what I had learned so many years prior at Spelman. That came back."
She especially remembered lessons from one of her mentors, Dr. Siga Fatima Jagne. "She was a firecracker, she had all this passion and she didn't try to dumb it down. I realized from her that you can be yourself. How exuberant or passionate you are shouldn't be offensive to people, and if it is, that's not your problem."
When Procore reached out about a job opportunity, Kellie was intrigued. Two former coworkers were working there and told her great things about the role, and her family had roots in the construction field. "I understood that space, I understood why it was such a need," she says.
As a Sr. Software Engineer, Kellie is committed to creating great, reliable products for Procore's customers. "Who wants to use an unstable product? If you can't rely on it, just imagine how our clients feel," she says.
Feeling a sense of belonging as a black woman in tech
The racial reckoning of the last year or so, stemming from George Floyd's death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, has led to conversations at many American workplaces that mostly-white leaders weren't practiced in having.
"Some people have never had to be an only, or be uncomfortable. And especially recently, there have been a lot of uncomfortable things that have come up and people don't know how to deal with it. That doesn't feel good to them, but people need to learn to sit with their discomfort and think about it," says Kellie of her experience talking about racism at work.
"It's not other people's job to make you feel comfortable—especially people like me. We've been in uncomfortable spaces and we didn't have someone try to make us comfortable; we had to deal," she adds.
She's found, though, that Procore's leadership has been willing to sit with those uncomfortable topics and to listen. "One of the best things that came out of that with Procore is not trying to run away from [problems], but acknowledging why don't we have a lot of people of color, why don't we have a lot of women, and saying 'let's do something about it,'" says Kellie.
Last summer was a hard time for many Black Americans, including Kellie, who says that the only meetings she showed up to with her camera on the week of George Floyd's death were those hosted by Procore's ERG for Black employees. "I needed that support group. I wasn't trying to explain to anybody. I just needed to talk to individuals who understood where I was at. I showed up every day and I did my job, but I didn't want to answer questions of how I was doing and 'what can I do to be better?'" remembers Kellie.
Later on, she also participated in listening sessions between that ERG and Procore's leadership. "They talked to each one of us," she says. "I felt valued and I felt seen."
Staying a rockstar
When Kellie thinks of where she'd like to be in five years, she has a pretty clear vision: "I just wanna try to be a rockstar."
"I want someone to, when they speak about me, not praise me, but talk about how I had a positive impact on them," she adds.
One key way she's able to make an impact? Leading by example: working hard, and showing up authentically, even when it makes others uncomfortable.
That's a lesson that she hopes everyone, but especially other Black women interested in tech, take to heart. "There are people that are rooting for you," she says. "You just have to go find them."
If you want to find your people at Procore, check out their open roles.